Chopper scam: Antony's 'honesty' and the perversion of politics

by Vembu  Feb 20, 2013 07:08 IST

#AgustaWestland   #AK Antony   #UPA government   #VVIP chopper scam  

In the annals of military history, the British intervention in the Crimean War between Turkey and Russia in the 19th century became legendary for the disastrous tactical blunders of British Commander Lord Raglan. In one particular battle episode, which unfolded in October 1854, Lord Raglan ordered his Light Cavalry Brigade to charge ahead  to fend off the Russians, who were seizing guns from British soldiers.  The cavalrymen knew that the order was fatally flawed, but as loyal soldiers trained to obey commands unquestioningly, they nevertheless rode into battle, only to be massacred within minutes.

That battle, and the unquestioning valour of the Light Brigade, was immortalised in Lord Tennyson's poem The Charge of the Light Brigade. One line in that poem stands out for its masterly understatement in summarising the colossal miscalculation of the British commander: "Someone had blundered."

Defence Minister AK Antony is no poet, but his understatement in encapsulating the story of alleged bribes paid in the AgustaWestland helicopter deal is worthy of a Lord Tennyson. "We followed all procedures and took all precautions," Antony said on Tuesday. "Despite all that, now it is clear (that) something happened somewhere."

AK Antony: personal probity alone isn't enough.  PTI

AK Antony: personal probity alone isn't enough. PTI

Something happened somewhere? Surely, Mr Antony can be a lot less coy...

What happened was this: for over a year now, it has been alleged, on the basis of investigations in Italy and media revelations back in India, that the deal to purchase AgustaWestland helicopters to purchase 12 helicopters to ferry VVIPs was tainted by corruption. Despite the express provision that no middlemen should be engaged, it is become apparent - on the basis of the confessions of these middlemen themselves - that AgustaWestland did engage middlemen who took commissions themselves and admit to having paid bribes to secure the deal. More sensationally, the charge-sheet filed in Italian courts names the former Air Chief  SP Tyagi as a beneficiary of the bribes.

Tyagi and his cousins (who too are named in the Italian charge-sheet as the key intermediaries who helped swing the deal) have contested the charges. Tyagi has in fact said he welcomes an investigation because it will, he says, clear his name of the taint of a bribe-taker.

Yet, although all these facts were in the public domain, Antony sat - "like patience on a monument, smiling at grief" - without any earnest effort to establish the truth of the matter. If the allegations, which have been in the public domain for over a year, were true, it would have amounted to a damning indictment of his Ministry's inability - despite all the "blacklisting" of tainted arms suppliers - to keep out middlemen and bribes from the deal.

Even today, after all the sound and fury in Italy following the arrest of Giuseppe Orsi, former CEO of Finmeccanica (the parent company of AgustaWestland), and the filing of the charge-sheet that names the Tyagi brothers and SP Tyagi, the Indian government's response appears leaden-footed. Yes, a CBI inquiry has been set up, but it inspires no confidence - not just given the agency's abysmally poor record in cracking corruption cases in defence deals but because even today, a week after the scandal resurfaced, it has not registered a case or questioned the alleged recipients of the payoffs in India.

Antony did of course indicate that his ministry would cancel the contract if indeed it was established that bribes were paid, but when your investigation conveys the impression that it has been set up to cover up the case, that counts only as an idle boast. And in any case, as Firstpost noted here, that 'threat' of a cancellation has already been watered down, with other senior ministers like Salman Khurshid raising false alarms suggesting that cancelling the contract would compromise India's "defence preparedness". As we'd observed, of all the defence deals of recent times, the AgustaWestland deal has the least to do with India's defence preparedness, and is in fact a test case for India to wield its "commercial clout" in its own interest of keeping defence deals clean.

The fact of the matter is that for all of Antony's reputation as being personally incorruptible, he as the Defence Minister has been used to provide a cloak of honesty while the usual suspects -  dalals and their political masters - have been striking shady deals and milking the military. Even Antony's reflexive actions in "blacklisting" tainted arms suppliers have not helped plug the leaks; beyond the AgustaWestland deal, they have only slowed down India's arms acquisitions.

It's now come to the point where retired armed forces officers are beginning to make the perverse case that perhaps we don't really need a scrupulously honest minister: what we need is someone who can  "strike a balance" between probity and effectiveness!

In other words, that argument goes, we could do with "someone who gets things done" - that is, open up the blocked channels for defence deals, even legitimise the payment of commissions - even if he is someone who isn't personally incorruptible.

Even given the twisted times we live in, such an argument is indicative of how far down the slippery slope of immorality we've slid. To say that it is better to have corrupt people in government because they make better administrators reflects, as political analyst Yogendra Yadav observed on a CNN-IBN panel discussion on Tuesday night, a "poverty of leadership" and a "poverty of political judgement." If the option is between efficiency and honesty - and they are mutually exclusive -  it  amounts to accepting defeat in the overall politics of the country, reasons Yadav.

The irony of the situation is that the current UPA government represents the worst of both worlds: it has proved itself to be monumentally corrupt, given the litany of scandals that is embroiled in in just the past few years. And yet, despite all that greasing of the tracks, it has abysmally failed to offer anything close to speedy administration. With the government, going right up to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seemingly asleep at the wheel in recent years, the only industry that is thriving today is the corruption industry. And the tragedy is that men like Manmohan Singh and Antony are giving 'corruption' a good name...

Something happened somewhere?  No,  Mr Antony. Perhaps the right way of summing up the Indian government's responsiveness - to the allegations of bribes in the AgustaWestland deal and, in a larger sense, over the past few years -  is to say that "nothing has happened nowhere."

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